For a while now, it’s been true that some of our tried-and-tested U.S. soul artists have looked to European record companies as a vehicle for releasing product that, for whatever reason, has not gained issue in their homeland. In recent years, we have examples like divas Randy Crawford and Oleta Adams both of whom have had albums out in Europe first - respectively "Permanent" (known in Germany where it was initially issued as "Play Mode") and "All The Love" (a Dutch release, still awaiting a U.S. outlet). For some time, companies like Expansion Records have provided a home for product by the likes of Rockie Robbins, Renee Diggs and others; the latest entrant into the UK market is Unleashthe80s Records, who are bringing us an album by the highly talented singer-songwriter Vaneese Thomas, who just happens to be the daughter of legendary Memphis pioneer Rufus Thomas and sister of much-beloved soul stylist Carla.
Those who know their 'stuff' will know that Vaneese is no stranger to the recording scene. She cut her first album in 1987 for Geffen Records and it's still considered a much-treasured and rare record. It provided Vaneese with a Top 10 R&B hit in the form of "Let's Talk It Over" and while she hasn't had a secular album since then, the multi-faceted artist has been more than a little busy working on projects for Disney (as Clio in 1997's "Hercules"), the US PBS network (as 'Grace The Bass' on "Shining Time Station") as well as cutting a couple of inspirational and gospel albums.
In between background sessions with a diversity of artists that includes Luciano Pavarotti, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, k.d. lang, Sting, Jonathan Butler and Jewel, Vaneese did cut a new album in the mid-'90s, entitled "Many Voices." It's this record that is now being released by Unleashthe80s as "Talk Me Down" and no doubt, the wait has been worthwhile. Adding to Vaneese's emotive vocalizing are a number of musical friends contributing to the album including saxman Kirk Whalum (who happens to be her cousin!), pianists Bob Baldwin and Michael Colina, bassist Will Lee and a stellar cast of background singers such as Patti Austin, Cynthia Biggs, James 'D-Train' Williams, Fonzi Thornton, Darryl Tookes and former Atlantic Starr members Sharon Bryant and Porter Carroll.
The title cut, "Dear John," "A Woman's Love" (co-written by sister Carla) and "A Candle" (a song Vaneese co-wrote that also appeared on Patti Austin's "Street Of Dreams" album) are among the many highlights on the CD and as Vaneese explains, "I began working on the album several years ago with my husband [producer] Wayne Warnecke in our home studio and the objective was to make a record of beautiful music. I'm privileged to have good friends like Cynthia [Biggs], Bob [Baldwin] and Michael [Colina] who are great writers. The main thing was to have a record that was meaningful and representative of me…"
Rather than take the traditional route, Vaneese and Wayne did not shop the finished album to U.S. companies which proved to be fortunate; for, when Unleashthe80s Records' founder Chris Marquis contacted Vaneese after checking out her Peaceful Waters website, he asked her if she had any music available for release. "I told him I had a whole album! It was such a wonderful experience to deal with someone like Chris who had a vision. Wayne and I had produced the "Talk Me Down" album with help from Michael Colina. It was done independently and I'm really glad we did it that way. There's no one looking over your shoulder, telling you what to do. I was fortunate even when I was with Geffen [through Hush Productions] I didn't have that so I've never known that kind of pressure."
Vaneese adds that "given the [current] state of R&B, finding Chris was a godsend. It’s definitely easier to reach people through the Internet which is how we sold my gospel album, "When My Back's Against The Wall." It's a learning process: I've never been one for self-promotion - it's hard for me to talk myself up but I now have to do it! What we have to do now is get everyone - including the public - to go past the idea of getting a record deal as the only way for an artist to have their music heard."
The star credits on "Talk Me Down" are a direct result of the relationships Vaneese has created over her years singing background vocals, doing jingles and songwriting. She began singing on commercials with Patti Austin "over fifteen years ago, before I had the deal with Geffen." Vaneese met many of her musical friends early on at a particular studio: "When I first got to New York in the '80s, there was a studio called Minot that was a nourishing breeding ground for a lot of artists. It had a relaxed atmosphere - there were people like Lenny White, Bob James, Michael Franks, Luther Vandross, Atlantic Starr who would stop by. My husband Wayne was the engineer there and when we started our own [Peaceful Waters] studio, they all came here and worked in it…"
Vaneese reflects that "Talk Me Down" is really the long-awaited follow up to her '87 Geffen album; she looks back on her brief experience with the label philosophically: "I was the only artist that came from Hush Productions with Geffen and it was obvious that they didn't have a clue about R&B even though I did have a couple of Top 20 R&B charted singles which meant that I was able to do gigs here and there." Continuously working with everyone from Clapton to Spyro Gyra was "like a day gig" and getting covers on some of her songs - like "Rain, Rain, Rain," another tune featured on Patti Austin's "Street of Dreams" album - helped keep Vaneese's name out there. Of course, there's nothing like having a new album out there and Vaneese reflects, "what has happened to R&B is objectionable! People want to hear real musicians so maybe the timing is right now for an album like mine. It may not have been right when we first did the record in the '90s…all I know is that the album is a compilation of beautiful, meaningful music.."
Whether she's singing about social issues (on "Black And White") or displaying that family tradition of heartfelt soul singing on Cynthia Biggs' "Fortune," Vaneese has created an album of which she can be justifiably proud. It’s no surprise that there has been a positive response from different markets like Germany and the Netherlands prompting the possibility of a 2002 European trip. We've certainly sold more than a few copes of "Talk Me Down" at The Soul Music Store and Vaneese is considering whether her next recording project should be in the gospel vein or whether to make another R&B album. Either way, it's a safe bet that she will deliver a musical gem if "Talk Me Down" is anything to go by!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.